The Fallout from Obama’s Executive Order Concerning Ivory

At a seminar at Mondomusica New York on April 11, 2014, Heather Noonan of the League of American Orchestras joined with violin and bow makers, an international environmental expert, and government officials to discuss the recent tightened restrictions on bringing ivory into the US, resulting from an Obama Administration Executive Order issued on February 24, 2014.

During that seminar, Taddes Korris, a Canadian bass player studying in New York City, stood up and told his story – how he decided not to return to Canada to take an audition for the Winnipeg Symphony because he feared that his expensive ivory-tipped bow would be confiscated when he attempted to return to New York. According to CBS News, Taddess was concerned about playing the audition without his best bow: “When you come to a concert or performance, you want to be at your A game,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants to take a risk when it comes to these fantastic bows and instruments.”

Heather NoonanI spoke with Heather recently about her advocacy work – working closely with Alfonso Pollard of the AFM and advocates from other organizations such as Chamber Music America – on behalf of traveling musicians. She stressed that the issue is not just traveling with an instrument containing ivory, but determining whether your instrument actually contains an endangered substance. The latter process can be quite difficult, and many musicians are just not willing to take the risk, so they are deciding not to travel.

According to Heather, “For individual musicians who are considering embarking on travel, it’s difficult to predict what they will encounter because everything is in a state of flux.” There is considerable risk in traveling without the required permit – most of the emphasis from the Executive Order has been on ivory, but the order also raises renewed awareness of the underlying requirements that pertain to rosewood and sea turtle.

The biggest challenge for musicians is that a system has not yet been built to facilitate compliance. The underlying rules about what endangered substances can be permitted entry to the US have been on the books for many years, but no practical system has been created that would take into account the endangered items that may be part of musical instruments, and how to handle those instruments as they pass through ports of entry to the US.

The Obama Administration’s Executive Order of February 25, 2014, issued by the Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), was intended to renew the United States’ commitment to the sustainability of African elephants. The order states that serious steps must be taken to position the US as a global leader in the war against illegal trafficking, and makes a strong statement for a no-tolerance policy for ivory trafficking. However, according to the order, many musical instruments containing African elephant ivory will not be allowed into the US, even if a musician is simply returning to the US with instruments in their personal possession, not intended for sale.

The current CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) permits in use were created for zoos (when moving live animals about) and commercial vendors of large shipments of items (mostly antiques), and the regulations were created with these frequent travelers in mind, not the musical community.

The AFM and the League (and others) are urgently talking to policy leaders and mainstream conservation groups. Their immediate concern is to find a solution quickly enough so the new governmental initiative doesn’t tamper with international cultural activities. The administration’s message is around prohibiting travel with, and the sale of, endangered materials, but it could have a chilling effect on musicians’ ability to use the tools of their trade.

Again, according to Heather, within days (hopefully by early May 2014) the Fish & Wildlife Service will issue some clarifications that will help with instruments purchased after 1976. They are also taking another look at that 1976 limitation. [The 1976 date stems from the year in which the African elephant was listed in the CITES treaty.]

However, the effect of the order is to put a bright light on existing permitting rules that haven’t been enforced in years. There is no reliable system of enforcement in existence, and there will be extreme challenges to traveling with instruments that contain ivory, tortoise shell or, to a lesser extent, rosewood. The League and the AFM want to put into the hands of travelers as much information as they can obtain about how the system works, where the risks and challenges are, and what the unanswered questions are.

Heather is encouraged that there’s a lot of sympathy at the agency for the problems they’ve created for musicians, and they recognize that traveling musicians are not contributing to the problem of illegal poaching. But it’s very unclear how rapidly they can rewind from the uncertainty they’ve created. The important thing is that they’re looking for ways to streamline the process for traveling musicians. At the moment, there’s very little consistency in what a musician may encounter when dealing with these procedures. Another serious issue is that musicians that have CITES permits may only travel through a very limited number of ports in the US that have staff available to stamp papers and inspect the instruments.

What can you do?

  • Write letters to your members of Congress, to alert them to the issue and how it’s impacting professional musicians. The League will establish a stream-lined way to do that and, working with the AFM, will craft some  messaging language.
  • Tell your story. If you have had a negative experience about this issue, contact your service organizations (the AFM, the League, Chamber Music America, etc.) and inform them of your personal experience. The more stories we have like Taddes Korris’, the stronger our position.

For detailed information about this issue:

  •  Read Alfonso Pollard’s article in the April issue of the International Musician:
  • For the very latest developments and facts about navigating the permit requirements, visit the League of American Orchestra’s webpage devoted to endangered species material in musical instruments.

Heather Noonan is the Vice President for Advocacy for the League of American Orchestras. Based in Washington, DC, Heather’s legislative portfolio includes federal policies related to the National Endowment for the Arts, education, immigration, cultural exchange, international travel with musical instruments, and nonprofit tax issues. Heather convenes the Cultural Advocacy Group, an ad-hoc collation of national arts and humanities organizations pursuing federal policies in support of the arts and culture.


About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians:

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here.

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